Re: Animated • Avengers “Hail Hydra!”

avengers21Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Hail, Hydra!”

As the first season of Avengers begin to draw towards a close, it’s time to start wrapping up some of the many plot-threads spun out during the season, and this episode has a lot of them: Hydra, AIM, Black Widow… and the Cosmic Cube!

  • We start off with a nice, mood-setting “roleplaying” segment with Hawkeye showing off his archery skills in front of the team. It features the friendly banter common to the Avengers (and Marvel Comics in general). Interesting to note Hulk’s growing respect for Hawkeye (their relationship is one of the more interesting ones of the animated series continuity) and Cap’s unwavering support (given that, in the comics, he was always the guy busting Hawk’s chops to do better). We also don’t get to see if Hawkeye actually makes the shot because we transition right into the next crisis.
  • In spite of good reason to mistrust her and Wasp’s encouragement to “go smash her!” the Hulk doesn’t just flatten Black Widow, but pins her and gives the Avengers a chance to interrogate her. Aaron Allston once said (and I’m paraphrasing, as I’m too lazy to look it up right now) that if the heroes in your game blast a villain to smithereens before he can even get off his first evil taunt, your game has a problem. I agree. I wonder if borrowing from the Dr. Who RPG might be warranted: an initiative system where talking happens before running which happens before fighting/attacking, or something similar.
  • This is not Iron Man’s episode: his armor gets shorted out by scanning the Cosmic Cube, then he crashes right in front of where a Hydra walker rises up out of the river. Complications, to be sure, but Iron Man doesn’t seem to benefit from them all that much. It could be a case of simple bad luck, one of front-loaded disadvantages (that is, Tony’s problems have already “paid” for themselves) or maybe Iron Man’s player is contributing to a team resource by suffering these setbacks?
  • Inspirational Cap is Inspirational: Captain America takes out a Hydra walker with a single shield toss (oh, yeah, they’re minions all right – big ones) but really shines in his handling of the Hulk. Instead of the usual bluster of the other Avengers, Cap tells Hulk to stop pitying himself and think of himself a hero, like he does.
  • “You sure you can make this shot?” Ant-Man riding one of Hawkeye’s arrows is a nice nod to Avengers #223, where another Ant-Man (Scott Lang, not Hank Pym) does the same thing.
  • Iron Man suffers shield failure against the SHIELD Agents (ha, “shield failure”… I see what you did there…). It really isn’t his episode. Thor and Black Panther step-in to help, although rescuing the SHIELD Helicarrier happens off-camera, as the action focuses on the Cube.
  • Blocking: Black Widow leaps in at the last moment to grab Ant-Man out of the way of a blast of flames, only to get grabbed by a Dreadnaught herself. Then Hawkeye steps in to hit the robot with a blast hero to free Widow. Interesting dynamic there of one hero defending another at the cost of his or her own defense. Think about a type of “team defense” mechanic where active heroes can shift an amount of defensive value amongst themselves, for example. The “economy” of such a shared resource would make for interesting teamwork.
  • Antici… pation: It’s clever use of the Cosmic Cube as MacGuffin in this episode in that the bad guys almost get to use it several times but it’s mainly the threat of the Cube and not its actual use that drive things. As Black Widow points out early on, it doesn’t matter if the Avengers believe the Cosmic Cube will work or not: AIM and Hydra believe it, and do they really want to take the chance? Such a technique can come in handy for a Gamemaster as well.
  • “I want the Avengers registered…” So, early prediction: in Season 2, we’ll see Director Hill pushing a Registration Program ala Marvel’s Civil War storyline, except with the twist that Iron Man is against it but Captain America (or, at least, the Skull posing as him) supports it. That would be a novel homage to Civil War, if so.

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Oh, the Humanity! (or Not): So, if Iron Man’s casual mention of three heavy duty electromagnetic pulses going off in Manhattan made you cringe at the potential for disaster, raise your hand. It’s okay. Me, too. Realistically, an EMP wave powerful enough to fry electronics across NYC would cause massive damage and, most likely, loss of life. In Avengers all it seems to do is create a major blackout. The lesson here is: Don’t make things worse than they already are. Comic books are full of disaster scenarios where nobody gets seriously hurt and that’s okay. As a GM, don’t feel compelled to provide a body count just because it would be more “realistic.” As a player, don’t harp on how much worse you think the situation should be, otherwise all that loss of fictional life when the GM complies is your fault!

Inspiration is Powerful: A lot of what superheroes are about is inspiration, embodying our hopes and ideals. So the very best heroes should have the ability to inspire others to greatness and that should mean something, mechanically, in the context of the game. If Captain America is “merely” a perfect human with incredible fighting skills, the game is missing his most important elements: his fighting spirit and his ability to spark it in others.

Self-Referential: This episode is a good example of how comic stories often do “short” foreshadowing: Hawkeye is lining up a tough shot in the opener, and is called upon to make an even harder one later. Hulk has a rejoinder with Ant-Man when Pym says he doesn’t enjoy fighting: “You’re not doing it right.” Later, Hulk crushes a Dreadnaught to help Ant-Man and quips, “See, fighting is fun!” It would be interesting to play around with a mechanic that rewards players for “connecting the dots” between an earlier moment in the narrative and a later one in this way: e.g., Hulk’s player says “I want to step in and take down the Dreadnaught, turning to Ant-Man and saying, ‘See? Fighting is fun!’” and the GM replies “Okay, you get a +2 bonus on the attack” (or a bonus hero point, or something like that).

Not Everything Needs Numbers Redux: The Cosmic Cube is the ultimate example of the principle mentioned in the previous “Avengers Assembled,” namely that not everything needs quantifying in game stats. The Cube is pure plot device: theoretically capable of anything. The heroes don’t deal with it by “fighting” against the Cube’s stats, but by fulfilling the requirements for victory set by the story (and the GM), namely, “nobody touches the Cosmic Cube”. In this case, they didn’t even technically do that and still won (although we also know there will be repercussions from this “victory”…). Which leads us to…

You Don’t Win Forever: Sure, the heroes manage to save the world this week, but a part of the superhero genre is that it is still going to be in danger next week, or whenever the next game session might be. Very few things in a superhero setting stay “fixed” for any great length of time. Sure, Hydra and AIM are beaten for now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t rise again. The Cosmic Cube is no longer a threat, for now, but things may still happen in the future, and so forth. Sometimes, the circumstances of one victory lead right into the next challenge: sure, you’ve stopped the nigh-omnipotent reality-altering gadget, but now what about its aftereffects?

Next Up: Ultron-5